2007 Teaching and Learning Symposium

2:30-4:30 p.m., April 24, 2007
HUB West Ballroom

Session Description


The use of sketches as a tool for identifying gaps in students’ conceptual models of “how search engines work”

Efthimis N. Efthimiadis and David G. Hendry - Information School


Search engines have entered popular culture. They touch people in diverse private and public settings and thus raise important questions about their use. To fully benefit from search engines and to participate in debate about their merits, people necessarily appeal to their understandings of how they function. Thus, people with more accurate and complete models for these search engines are more empowered. To examine the nature of this technical knowledge, over 230 undergraduate and graduate students in Information School classes were prompted to draw sketches of how a search engine works.

This tool has been used in different ways in the classroom in order to improve the student conceptual models through participation and active learning opportunities:

  • In each class, after the sketches were completed the instructors ask the students to contribute to the creation of a sketch on the whiteboard. This collectively drawn sketch integrates the conceptual models of the students into a new one that is more complete.

  • A reference model was constructed and each sketch was analyzed and compared against it for completeness. Analysis of the sketches reveals a diverse range of conceptual approaches, metaphors, representations, and misconceptions. On the whole, students with higher levels of academic achievement sketched more complete models. This research calls attention to the importance of improving students’ technical knowledge for how search engines work so they can be better equipped to develop and advocate policies for how search engines should be embedded in, and restricted from, various private and public information settings.

  • For each class the sketches provide a way of educational assessment and knowledge gap identification so that the class curriculum can be re-designed to meet students’ needs.

  • The information extracted from the sketches is also used in classes in order to discuss information system design issues.




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